03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 12.2

Agarwen lay unconscious on a nearby table, her wounded shoulder just off its edge. His eyes caught the red gleam of the arrowhead against the dark wood of the table’s apron. Niall was bent over her, working to stanch the flow of blood. His bare, wet hands glistened. A grave dissatisfaction marred his face.
“Arden, good, you’re here,” he said. “Come, tell me what you think.”
“How is she?”
“Well, the arrow missed the artery or she’d be dead already, but she’s lost a lot of blood. If only Evénn were awake.”
Arden glanced over at the elf, who was slumped in a chair about ten feet away. Then he set about examining Agarwen’s wound. Reaching around behind her, he traced the shaft of the arrow up from its barbed steel tip to her back. Her warm blood coated his fingers. A small pool of it had collected on the floor. He looked at her lips and into her mouth, and was relieved to find no blood there.
“It’s missed her lung, too. That’s good,” he said, trying to sound hopeful, but he was as desperate for Evénn’s skills and knowledge as Niall was. “Have you tried rousing Evénn?”
“No, I’ve been too busy with her.”
From the corner of his eye Arden saw the innkeeper and a pair of women peeking through a doorway behind the bar. They ducked out of sight as he turned his head towards them.
“They’re so terrified by what Evénn did that they’ve been quite helpful,” Niall said without looking. “They’ve brought me cloth for bandages, hot water to wash the wound, everything I’ve asked for. Can’t say I blame them for being scared. Arden, if we don’t stop the bleeding soon, it will be too late.”
“Get me the herbs in Evénn’s saddlebags. I’m going to see if I can wake him. If I fail, I’ll have to try some healing spells he taught me on our way to the Valley. And Jalonn also needs you outside.”
“Very well,” Niall answered. He did not want to leave his friend. “Give me half a moment.”
With Niall gone, he looked over at Evénn, who appeared more tired, drained actually, than anyone Arden had ever seen.
“Well, it’s a small comfort to know,” Arden almost shouted at him, “that there is something that wears you out, my friend. But now is not the time for sleeping. Agarwen is hurt, and we cannot stay here long.”
Evénn stirred slightly when Arden spoke to him, as if his voice had reached him, however faintly.
“Evénn,” Arden yelled. “Wake up. I need you.”
The elf murmured a few unintelligible words. Arden looked at him, then around the room. Evénn was too far away for Arden to reach him without leaving Agarwen unattended, but on the next table there was a full mug of ale. He needed only step away from her for an instant to set his hand on it. Despite his concern for Agarwen, he could barely suppress a grin.
“Well,” he said to the elf, “what do you expect when you pass out in a tavern?”
With that he darted over, seized the mug, and stepped quickly back. He gulped some down, then threw the rest in Evénn’s face.
“Evénn, wake up!” he shouted again. “Agarwen needs you. Her wounds are beyond me.”
Evénn stirred and his eyes blinked open. It took him a few seconds to focus. Then he shifted his gaze to Arden and Agarwen, but he was clearly exhausted and fighting to remain awake. He forced himself to lean forward, resting his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands.
“Tell me how she is,” he said groggily.
“Bad. The arrow struck her just below the joint of the collarbone and shoulder, coming steeply downward. The point came through her back. She’s lost a lot of blood, but she’s still alive.”
“We’ll have to leave the arrow in her for now. Did you bring my herbs?”
“Niall is getting them.”
“Good. Put them in hot water and wash the wound with them. Use the spells I taught you. I’ll say them with you, but I haven’t much strength.”
Just then Niall returned with Evénn’s saddlebags.
“I brought everything,” he said, looking back and forth between Evénn and Arden.
Arden dumped the bags out on the table beside the bowl of steaming water. He soon found the herbs he remembered Evénn using on him. He held them up for the elf to see.
“These?”
“Yes. Now into the water with them, quick as you can. No, not all, save some for later. Stir them a little.”
“Will they help much?” Niall asked hopefully.
“Yes. She’ll be able to ride – slowly – in an hour or so.”
“We don’t have an hour,” Arden protested. “The dragon felt your spell. He’ll be here soon.”
Niall and Evénn both gave him a sudden, very intent look.
“Just so. We’ll tie her into the saddle, then,” Evénn said, but in his eyes there was a question he did not ask.
“I’ll go help Jalonn,” Niall said and left, glancing sidelong at Arden as he went.
“Can you ride?” Arden asked Evénn as he stirred the herbs and water.
“Yes. Now wash her wound, Arden. Quickly.”
Arden carefully poured some of the liquid over Agarwen’s shoulder, rinsing away the blood. As tenderly as he could he washed her wounds front and back. Joined by Evénn, he whispered the words of the enchantment. In less than a minute the flow of blood slowed and stopped. Agarwen began to breathe more easily.
“Cut the shaft and the arrowhead off now, Arden,” the elf said, “but leave enough for us to get a grip on later.
He had nothing to cut them with, and could not leave her to go searching for shears. So with his dagger he notched the shaft of the arrow on either side and snapped both ends off. Agarwen gasped in pain and opened her eyes. Her right hand seized Arden’s wrist.
“Forgive me, Agarwen. It had to be done,” he said to her gently.
For a few seconds she glared at him, her eyes wide and her breath coming hard. Then she relaxed her grip and her breathing slowed. She turned her head and saw Evénn, who was still reciting the words of the spell.
“Why aren’t we dead?” she asked Arden.
“I’ll explain later,” Arden replied, “or maybe Evénn will. I don’t know.”
She smiled weakly at the concern for her she saw on his face.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
Without a word her eyes told him that she thought him mad to ask.
“The herbs will ease your pain soon,” he said, “and you’ll begin to feel stronger now that the bleeding has stopped. You’re lucky to be alive. Once we get somewhere safer, we’ll attend more thoroughly to your wound.”
“Give me a minute and I’ll be ready,” she said, trying, and failing, to sit up.
Arden smiled at her courage – she always had been brave – but said:
“Not just yet. You must rest for a bit and recover your strength. Lie still. Let the herbs and the enchantment do their work. I’ll tell you when it’s time to go.”
Arden pressed her hand and let it go. Evénn was by now sitting upright in his chair. He looked better than before, but still weary. Their eyes met. Evénn was again scrutinizing him as he had when Arden mentioned the dragon. Only now that he was more awake his gaze was more penetrating, as if he was trying to read something within Arden to explain his words. It made him uncomfortable. He was annoyed that he had let slip into the waking world what he had seen in the dream.
“Can you watch over Agarwen while I go outside?” Arden said. “Jalonn and Niall will be wanting to know her condition, and yours.”
“Yes,” he answered, pushing himself to his feet, “I can attend her. We’ll speak later.”
Arden nodded, still feeling uncomfortable, and went outside. Niall had the horses saddled. He was checking and retightening their cinches when Arden came up to him. Niall lifted an eyebrow.
“She is awake,” Arden reported. “The herbs have stopped the bleeding, but she’s very weak and in a great deal of pain.”
“That’s a relief,” Niall sighed. “We’ve been friends for a long time now.”
“She is made of tough stuff, Niall. Once we have gotten her out of here, and Evénn has recovered enough to tend her, she will be better.” Arden paused. “I would miss her, too.”
Niall cocked his eyebrow again.
“Not like that,” Arden said sharply.
“How long will you mourn the dead, good Arden?” Niall thought as he turned back to the horses. Aloud he said, “What of Evénn?”
“He is regaining his strength. Where’s Jalonn?”
“He and Argos went off to investigate the tower right after I brought you the herbs. They should be back soon. The wolf and I have kept an eye on things.”
“Have you seen anything?”
“No, out here only the wind moves and breathes. It’s been quiet.”
Arden surveyed the street again. How could Evénn do this, be this powerful, and still be no match for the dragons? Yet all the power wielded by Evénn’s father and the other elf lords who had summoned the dragons back from the world of spirits had been unable to withstand them; and the strength of all the elves led by Evénn and his brother, joined to all the forces sent from Narinen, had availed nothing. As dangerous as Evénn was, the dragons were more perilous still.
Jalonn’s return from the tower was signaled by the arrival of Argos, who picked his way through the bodies in the street to reach Arden and Niall. The Master was not far behind.
“They’re all dead in the tower, too,” he said. “What of Agarwen and Evénn?”
Arden explained.
“Well, the two of them better hurry,” Jalonn said. “It’s been an hour since Evénn did this, and I’m surprised the dragon isn’t here already. Bad enough to be trapped in this narrow street against men.”
Arden and Niall were just turning towards the tavern when the door opened. Evénn came out with Agarwen leaning on him, her right arm around his waist. Neither looked strong. Jalonn and Arden went to assist them. Agarwen’s eyes were no more than half open.
“Arden,” Evénn said, “go get your horse and hers. We’ll need you to stay by her and keep her in the saddle.”
“Just get me on Bufo’s back, and I’ll be fine,” Agarwen insisted as Arden left to get their horses.
“There’s a time to be brave, lass, and a time to be smart,” Jalonn said gently. “Be smart now, and let us help you.”
When Arden returned riding Impetuous and leading Bufo, Agarwen allowed Jalonn to help her into the saddle, but shook off the hand Arden placed on her shoulder. As she did so, she winced. The torchlight did nothing to color her wan face.
“My thanks to you all,” she murmured, “but – Master Jalonn, what are you doing?”
“Making sure you don’t fall off,” Jalonn said as he tied her into her saddle.
“That’s hardly necessary.”
“I say it is.”
Even through the fog that seemed to surround her, Agarwen recognized the hushed finality of Jalonn’s tone. She fell silent. She was too weak to argue even if there had been any point in it. The strength she had summoned to walk out of the tavern on her own was almost gone. Everything required so much effort, and she had to stay awake. So she focused on Evénn, who was climbing onto Moonglow’s back just in front of her. His movements were stiff and slow, like those of a tired old man too proud to ask for help. With a nod of his head, he thanked Niall for bringing him his weapons. He sheathed his sword and hung his bow over his shoulder.
Last of all he took from him the sword of adamant, still hidden in its blue silk wrapper. Now he uncovered it and wore it openly across his back. As he carefully folded the silk and slipped it into one of his saddlebags, he looked up and down the street. There was a cold expression on his face. Agarwen’s eyes followed his, and for the first time she became aware of the dead. She stared at them with a sleepy fascination. She did not hear Evénn when he spoke.
“The dragon will be hunting us now,” he said. “We must be on our way, but some of these soldiers’ cloaks might prove useful.”
“We already took some,” Jalonn answered.
“Then let’s put this slaughter behind us.”
Niall rode over with Jalonn’s horse, but Jalonn took a moment to go to the tavern door. He pulled it shut, then laid his hand in the center of the door, his palm flat against it. They could hear him speaking under his breath. When he was finished, he stood there briefly, as if waiting. He then mounted his horse.
“That should do it,” he said.
“A spell of binding?” Evénn asked.
“Yes. That innkeeper and his women may have helped us, but they did so out of terror. They’re not our friends, and they’ll be eager to prove that to the dragon when he comes and puts a greater fear upon them. Better they do not see where we go. They know enough about us as it is.”
The companions moved through the ranks of the dead, which an hour earlier had been living men determined to kill them, men who never doubted that so many would overwhelm so few. The high point of the pass was not far up the street from the tavern, and they reached it just as they left the last of the corpses behind. Here they saw several dead soldiers face down – unlike all their comrades whose sightless eyes stared heavenward – who had fled in terror of Evénn’s light. None had gone more than a step or two before it overtook them. But even when the companions left the last body behind, the thought of them weighed heavily.
“My god, Arden,” Agarwen whispered sleepily, “my god.”
The horror in her voice was something he recognized, just as he knew there was no reply he could make. Until tonight Agarwen had never seen so much death before. He had envied her that. The bloodstained skirmishes and single combats she had lived through were cruel enough without the added memory of such slaughter. Late or soon, a price had to be paid that no hatred of the enemy, no argument of necessity or justice could lessen. The heart hardened. Youth and laughter were lost in silence. There was no other way. Arden remembered.
Yet Agarwen was as brave as he had always thought. Despite the horrors of Prisca and the pain in her shoulder, which every step of Bufo on the hard stone road magnified, she rode on without complaint. Arden stayed beside her on her right. For her sake they could go no faster than a quick walk, but even Agarwen thought their pace dangerously slow. Several times Arden heard her impatiently muttering Jalonn’s name or his own, and once he caught the word ‘searching.’
Once they were through the pass the road fell away swiftly before them, winding down and down across the mountainside. Jalonn immediately sent Niall ahead with Argos and the wolf to find a way to escape into the forest, but every glance over the low stone curb that guarded the edge revealed only slopes that were too steep to risk in the dark with two nearly unconscious riders. Niall was soon far ahead and out of sight. He was gone for what seemed a very long time.
In his absence they crept downward, feeling naked and conspicuous. Every time the moon peered between the racing clouds it seemed bright as the sun at noon. With each ringing hoofbeat they expected a dark shape to plummet from above and fill the night with fire. Arden scanned the gray and black skies, striving against the night to glimpse a moving shadow, as much as he did the next bend in the road ahead for some sign of Niall. But all he saw were the pines looming on the slope above them, the glimmer of the white road beneath their feet, and everywhere else the empty air. Where was Niall? Where was the dragon?
Then the wind began to rise. From the soft breeze just graced with salt which he and Niall had detected coming through the pass earlier it exploded into a cold gale that swirled and hissed through the pines around them. Up ahead Jalonn raised his hand for them to halt. A sudden gust pushed Arden a couple of steps sideways. He nudged Impetuous back close Agarwen, and took her by the arm. Jalonn glanced quickly across the sky, and turned back to Evénn, who had momentarily shaken off his exhaustion and was gazing upwards. He gripped the hilt of the sword of adamant, though he had not yet drawn it.
Arden was just beginning to reach for his bow, which he wore slung across his back and shoulders, when Agarwen once again shrugged his hand off. She had been quiet for so long that he looked at her in surprise, but now she was sitting upright with Bufo’s reins held firmly in her right hand. Her eyes were wide open, and in them was a defiant, lying look that declared she needed no assistance.
“You’ll need both hands for that,” she growled, trying to sound fierce and assured, but her pain was choking her words.
Agarwen bowed her head then, and her hood concealed her face from him. She sidled Bufo away, to give Arden room to move. He grabbed his bow, fitted an arrow to the string, and waited. But Evénn gave no sign. At length he let go of his sword, and they set off once more. It was just the wind. Before long Evénn was nodding with exhaustion again. Arden frowned and slipped the arrow back into his quiver, but he did not shoulder his bow. Agarwen rode quietly beside him. Niall still did not return. The wind dwindled back to a steady breeze out of the southeast.
“Arden,” Agarwen said to him after a while in a voice that was small and full of sleep, “the air here tastes of salt. Is that the sea? I’ve never been so close before.”
Arden smiled to himself. In her weakness, she sounded again like the little girl he had known many years ago in the Valley, long before she ever became his apprentice. In those days she followed the younger Rangers about, pursuing them with endless questions about the world abroad, beyond the Valley where she had been born and which was all the world she knew. They had been kind to her and humored her. They told her tales – even Arden did so, since she showed so particular an interest in the sea that he loved – but every time they stretched the truth a bit to tease her, her sharp mind saw through their lies. Then she would laugh and refuse to believe them.
Now, while they hastened slowly down this dark road and the stars wheeled across the sky toward midnight, it was this little girl’s voice that spoke through Agarwen the Ranger. The innocence and curiosity in it were as charming now as they had been twenty years ago.
“Yes, Agarwen, that is the sea,” he answered fondly. “In the morning you may be able to see it, depending on where we end up tonight. The scent on the air and the morning sun dancing on the waves are the best parts of life. Of mine anyway.”
“Maybe it’s just my wound, but I feel like I’m in a dream, or waking up to an older, purer world.”
“The sea does have that effect, but you have lost a lot of blood, you know. Don’t talk. Save your strength. We may have far to go tonight.”
“All right, but with my lungs full of this air, I feel stronger than I did before.”
“Hush now, Agarwen. Rest if you can.”
She said no more and they continued downward. Before long the stars told Arden it was nearly midnight, and Niall finally returned, clattering up the road with Argos and the wolf running before him. He turned his horse and fell in beside Jalonn.
“I have found a way off the road. I thought I remembered one, but it’s been so long. It was much farther off than I thought.”
“How far?” Jalonn asked simply.
“About two miles below us – by the road, that is – there is a spot. It’s difficult going at first, but it leads to a ridge which we could ride south along without too much trouble. We could find a place to camp there. It should be secluded enough.”
“That’s where we’ll go then,” Jalonn replied, “but we must go faster. I don’t want that damned creature to catch us when we are nearly back in the woods.”
Arden looked at Agarwen, who nodded.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
“You were my apprentice, Agarwen, and are my friend. So, I’ll worry.”
They moved faster now, pushing their horses almost to a trot. Niall dropped back and rode on Agarwen’s left, close enough to help her if she faltered. But she did not, though from time to time they heard her groan or inhale sharply through clenched teeth. They ignored those signs of pain. Even if they could slow down, she would never agree to do so, or admit that her wound could conquer her will.
“It’s just ahead, scarcely three hundred yards away on the right, just before the road switches back to the north again,” Niall said, then rode forward to point it out to Master Jalonn. But as he passed Evénn, the elf suddenly pulled Moonglow off to the side and halted. His bearing changed instantly, and his hand rested on the hilt of the sword.
“He’s coming,” he said in a voice of warning. “The dragon is coming now. Hurry. Ride for the woods.”
Even before Arden could look at Agarwen, she had set her spurs to Bufo, who leaped forward into a full gallop. Already she was nearly ahead of Jalonn, whose horse had barely started moving.
“Reckless,” Arden muttered fiercely as he urged Impetuous after her, but Evénn and Moonglow were already at a run and overtaking her. Arden, Niall, and Jalonn rode on their heels. Soon they reached the next bend in the road and plunged into the trees.
Once out of sight of the road they slowed their pace to a walk. They had little choice. For the undergrowth was thick around them and the path they had to trace would have been obscure even in daylight. All but Agarwen dismounted and took their horses by the reins. Niall went on before them. A few hundred yards into the trees they came to a small hollow which climbed steeply downward at first before leveling off. Here Evénn signaled to them to halt. Niall and Arden helped Agarwen from her horse. She was groaning with pain.
“We will hide here for now, until the dragon passes over,” Evénn whispered, but as he did so he looked over at Agarwen. “Arden, tend her wounds. We must be silent as the dead.”
Arden went to Agarwen who was sitting hunched over, willing herself to silence, afraid to betray them. When he knelt before her, she raised her face to him, but deep in the hollow among the trees and the brush he could not see her eyes. For that he was grateful, since he was sure she had re-opened her wound in the jarring race downhill. Had she been able to see his face, she would have known how anxious he was. Then Arden touched her wounded shoulder and knew his fears were justified. Her entire left side was soaked in blood. Much more of that and they would lose her.
Returning to Impetuous he fetched the skin which he had filled with the mixture of water and herbs before he left the tavern. Kneeling again, he opened her tunic and shirt and delicately pulled back the bandages. When he poured the liquid over the wound, back and front, he could feel her flinch and stiffen. Her right hand tightened on his shoulder. Through it all she made no sound. But as he unthinkingly opened his mouth to begin the words of the healing spell, she let go of him and pressed her fingers softly against his lips for a moment, silencing him. Then her hand dropped away and she slumped forward into his arms. He held her briefly, her head resting on his shoulder. As carefully as he could he laid her down on her right side, and checked her heartbeat and breathing. They were weak, but constant. He threw his cloak over her to keep her warm. Niall came up behind him with her bedroll and his own, slipped them beneath her head, and went away. They had done all they could for now.
Down in the hollow the still air was cold and damp as only the sea air can be. High above the wind hissed through the pines. Arden stayed with Agarwen, while Niall and Jalonn stroked the horses’ heads and necks to soothe and quiet them. They were restive after a long day’s work pulling the wagon up the mountain road and from that last dash down it into the woods.
At the lip of the hollow Evénn stood wrapped in his cloak, almost invisible unless he moved or looked their way and Arden caught the dim night glimmer of his eyes. The wolf sat next to him, cocking his head from side to side listening to the night sounds of forest. Argos lay down between Agarwen and Arden, who reached across him at short intervals to take her by the wrist, counting time to himself by the beating of her heart. They could only wait.
Then Evénn lifted his hand to signal them that the dragon was close by. Arden looked up, but there was nothing to see. The forest canopy was too dense for even the brightest star to shine through, and the moon had disappeared westward beyond the mountain. Yet somehow Evénn could tell that the dragon was overhead, just as on the road he had known he was approaching. Arden wondered if the dragon felt the presence of Evénn as well, and if, as the dragon searched, their minds touched each other.
After some time, Evénn lowered his hand and came back down the slope.
“The beast has gone,” he said in little more than a whisper. “He’s certainly reached Prisca by now. For the moment we are safe. I think.”
No one needed to say that they should get deeper into the woods, away from the road, but they all knew Agarwen could go no further. They had guessed as much even before Arden told them that her wound had reopened in the final rush to escape the road. Evénn came and listened to her breathing and heart, and carefully probed her shoulder. After a few minutes, he sighed in dissatisfaction.
“If I weren’t so tired, I could do much. But I can still help her a little, I think, so she can sleep in peace until we go. Tomorrow I’ll be able to do more, and we can have that shaft out.”
“She would not let me use the spell,” Arden said.
“She was wise, with the beast so near. Yet it may cost her. Help me now with the enchantment.”
In his voice Arden could hear his concern for Agarwen and his frustration that he could do so little. As the two began murmuring the words Evénn had taught him, Arden became aware that Niall and Master Jalonn were standing behind them. Niall said nothing, but he could hear Jalonn softly repeating the spell with them. Arden was surprised. He had not known that Jalonn possessed a knowledge of healing, but this was just one more of the lessons he had recently learned about the swordmaster. There were probably many things the Master of Swords must know that he himself did not, and others that he might have learned from the Masters over the years, had he not refused to believe, then disappeared into the woods for months or years at a time. Yet they had answered his stubbornness with patience, just as they had waited for a chance against the dragons to make itself known. He saw that patience like theirs required faith.
When the enchantment was done, Evénn sighed again, this time with exhaustion. His one hand still held Agarwen’s wrist and his other was pressed lightly upon her shoulder over the wound. Eventually he looked up at Arden.
“That will stop the bleeding,” he said, “provided she is not disturbed again. We must keep her as warm as possible until morning, or this cold will drain the life from her.”
“I’ll get our blankets,” said Jalonn and walked away.
“You’ve done well this night, Arden,” Evénn said. “Without you she would already be lost.”
Arden did not answer. Jalonn returned with the blankets, spreading some over Agarwen, and with Arden’s help slipping others beneath her. As dark as it was, Arden could see how gentle he was being. Before he left he tucked the last blanket up under her chin as if he were tucking in a child. From Niall, a father of four, Arden would have expected this tenderness, but not from the Master of Swords.
“How different we all could have been,” he thought.
“What was that, Arden?” he heard Niall ask.
“I was just thinking.”
“Oh, I thought I heard you say something. You stay with her. Jalonn and I will stand guard. You know, I think Evénn is already asleep.”
Arden looked over. Evénn’s back was to the tree behind Agarwen and his head had sunk down on his breast.
“He doesn’t seem to do much of that,” Niall whispered cheerfully, and when Arden did not reply, he said, “They’ll be all right before long. Then we can get on with this.”
Arden grunted in reply. Niall left to join Jalonn. Arden pulled his cloak tightly about him and drew up his hood. He shivered. The night was cold and dawn hours away.

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